The difference — well, one of them— between Gill and Ulmer is that Gill plays with laserlike precision. He might not be a machine (Gang of Four isn’t Kraftwerk), but he’s still a laborer doing a job. Ulmer is a bluesman, playing from the pit of his stomach. One is cerebral, the other is soulful, and the soul doesn’t always work in linear equations. Unlike the brain, the soul knows that things don’t always make sense. Marc Ribot is a deeply soulful player who doesn’t feel the need to always make sense.
There was only one question I really wanted to ask him when I interviewed him for Guitar Player and I struggled over how to word it. What was it about his playing that seemed — sloppy? reckless? I settled on “haphazard.” He knew what I was getting at, although I’m not sure he liked my phrasing.
“When other people are laying down the groove, I can mess with it,” he said in response to my half-formulated question. “But when I’m playing solo, I have to build the building and destroy it. I try to be precise rhythmically in everything I do. Sometimes with Spiritual Unity I go into solos with pulse, but I’m not a fan of rubato. My hero is [James Brown trombonist] Fred Wesley, who’s all about timing. It takes a lot of artifice to create the sensation of haphazardness.”
The first time I saw Ribot play was around 1987 with Elvis Costello. I was down on Costello at the time, but friends were going and I had to see what this guy who wedged notes sideways and backwards all over Tom Waits records was all about. The show was at Poplar Creek, a huge outdoor theater in the Chicago suburbs, and “seeing” Ribot wasn’t really what happened. But several years later on a trip to new York, I discovered a record store called “Downtown Music Gallery” and the manager, an amiable fellow named Bruce Gallanter, told me that Ribot would be playing in the store that evening. I hurried my touring about and got to the small and packed-to-the-walls store just as Ribot was about to begin. With no concern for propriety (this was my New York vacation) I pushed my way through and sat on the floor, my nose inches from Ribot’s shoe as he sat cross-legged on a stool, and revelled.
I was in town for a friend’s wedding. The dinner was the following night at Marion’s in the Village. More lost than I wanted to admit, I kept going into a restaurant named “Mary Anne’s” looking for them, thinking a Mexican restaurant was an unusual choice but still thinking that it had to be the place. Each time I walked in, I made eye contact with Ribot, who was having dinner there and who seemed to be trying to figure out why he recognized me. That or he was trying to ward me off from sitting at his feet again.